TV Lexicon: Laugh Track
A laugh track or canned laughter is a separate soundtrack
with the sound of audience laughter, made to be inserted into TV comedy
shows and sitcoms. The first television show to incorporate a laugh track
was The Hank McCune Show.
Before television, people had always experienced comedy, whether
performed live on stage, on radio, or in a movie, as part of an audience.
In the early days of television, it was thought that watching recorded
comedy at home alone, without hearing the laughter of other attendants,
would feel odd to some viewers, and the laugh track was an attempt to
reintroduce this familiar element.
From the beginning, however, laugh tracks were derided as being a
"cue" for the viewing audience to laugh at the appropriate time
during a TV show, as if they would not know otherwise. TV critics have
often claimed that laugh tracks are used to cover up problems with the
writing of a TV show, by using artificial "canned" laugh tracks
to make the show seem funnier than it actually is. This has led some to
change the common phrase "taped in front of a live studio
audience" into "live in front of a taped studio audience."
Some viewers regard the laugh track as an insult to their intelligence and
sense of humor. ABC,
among other television networks, were notorious for overusing the laugh
track, which was parodied on The Rerun Show's adaptation of
script. In the 1970s, the laugh tracks used on shows like Eight
is Enough and The
Love Boat were looser and much lighter, and these have become the
standard on many shows today.
Laugh tracks have even been used in some traditionally animated
television series, such as The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo,
where common sense would tell the viewer that a live audience would be
impossible, unless the audience were watching the cartoon being played
When a show is taped in front of a live audience, the term
"sweetening" describes the addition of recorded laughter or
manipulation of the sound level of the live laughter to "punch
up" the effect.
Several TV comedy series have aired completely without laugh tracks,
but in the United States these shows have been relatively few and far
between. The most successful current U.S. TV comedy show to air completely
without a laugh track or "live" audience laughter is The
Simpsons, an animated series (although the show has been known to
parody canned laughter on occasion). Laugh track-free production has been
gaining ground in the U.S., especially in more avant-garde,
critically-acclaimed situation comedies and dramedies
including Scrubs, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Malcolm in the Middle, Andy
Richter Controls the Universe and Arrested Development. Such
shows are often produced in the more expensive "drama style,"
using on-location shooting and high production values, as opposed to the
standard multi-camera sitcom sound stage.
Larry Gelbart, creator of the TV series M*A*S*H,
has said that he initially wanted the show to air entirely without a laugh
track, but this idea was rejected by the CBS
TV network. Eventually a compromise was reached, and the laugh track was
omitted from all operating room scenes on the show. Some syndicated and
international versions omitted the laugh track completely, and the DVD
release gives the viewer a choice of laughing or non-laughing soundtracks.
In Britain most sitcoms (aka "Britcoms") are taped before
live audiences to provide natural laughter. Some shows do omit laugh
tracks altogether, notably Absolute Power and The Office. The
League of Gentlemen was originally broadcast with a laugh track, but
after the first two series this was dropped, probably at the insistence of
Laugh track-free production has been the norm among Canada's
One interesting sidenote about the laugh track is that there is at
least one video game to have used one. Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, for
the Nintendo 64, used a laugh track in certain dialog sequences in the
game. This of course is even more surreal than hearing a laugh track in a
cartoon, since a live audience cannot possibly exist in the case of a